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O’Neal leads Lakers past Minnesota

Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal shoots over Minnesota's Ervin Johnson, left, during the first quarter Tuesday night. O'Neal finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds.Los Angeles' Devean George slams one in during the second quarter of the Lakers' win.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal shoots over Minnesota's Ervin Johnson, left, during the first quarter Tuesday night. O'Neal finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds.Los Angeles' Devean George slams one in during the second quarter of the Lakers' win. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Greg Beacham Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Shaquille O’Neal waded toward the basket with Mark Madsen draped across his shoulders like a Minnesota winter coat. Shaq looked to the officials, his eyes bugging with frustration and disbelief.

Though the whistle never blew on that play, the Timberwolves hacked, smacked and whacked their way to a close game — until Kobe Bryant finally showed up to back his teammate one more time.

O’Neal had 22 points and 17 rebounds, and Bryant awoke from a scoreless first half for 22 points in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 100-89 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday night.

Los Angeles did it the hard way in what’s shaping up as an ugly series without a hint of Showtime. With plenty of free throws and just enough defense, the Lakers grinded out a victory against the Timberwolves’ vintage Hack-a-Shaq defense in the second half to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.

“It’s far from being done,” Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said. “We’ll foul Shaq 50 times, if that’s what it takes.”

“If he fouls me 40 times, I’d probably only go to the line 15,” O’Neal replied.

Shaq was a miserable 8 for 22 from the line, with 19 attempts after halftime. His anger grew with each foul, and he stared down the Minnesota bench while leaving the game in the final minute.

But O’Neal has proved he’ll take any punishment for his overwhelming presence and underwhelming free-throw stroke — as long as the reward is a ring.

“My percentage isn’t pretty, but I’m not going to miss them all,” O’Neal said. “That hasn’t worked at all this millennium, and it’s not going to work.”

Game 4 is Thursday night. Earlier that day, Bryant is scheduled for a court appearance in Eagle, Colo.

The series returns to Minnesota for Game 5 on Saturday.

The Diesel has a way of wearing down everything — defenders, Los Angeles’ inconsistencies, even that lid on the basket when he’s at the line. He was 2 for 13 before finishing on a Rick Barry-esque 6-for-9 streak.

“Shaq’s used to that,” Bryant said. “(Madsen) has been hacking Shaq the past couple of years at every practice. Flip normally doesn’t go to the Hack-a-Shaq. Tonight, he tried it, but Shaq did a pretty good job.”

Gary Payton scored 14 of his 18 points in the first quarter for the Lakers, who got double-figure scoring from all five of their starters for the first time in the playoffs.

Kevin Garnett had 22 points and 11 rebounds for the Timberwolves, but the league MVP went 16 1/2 minutes between field goals in the second half and eventually fouled out.

“I didn’t play well at all,” Garnett said. “My mentality was more defensive tonight. I tried to stay active as much as possible, but I got a couple of fouls, and that made me a little stagnant.”

Wally Szczerbiak scored 19 of his 21 points in the second half, including 14 straight to end the third quarter — but Minnesota never led after the opening minutes.

Bryant clinched the victory with back-to-back 3-pointers, the last with 4:46 left to put the Lakers up 91-74.

Sam Cassell had 18 points in 26 minutes, but played just one minute in the fourth quarter because of the back spasms and hip problems which limited him to 43 seconds in Game 2. Latrell Sprewell had another down game, going 3 for 12 before hitting four late shots to finish with 18 points.

No vigilante play resulted from both teams’ veiled threats of rough play after the combative end to Minnesota’s series-tying victory in Game 2, which included seven technical fouls and Karl Malone’s ejection for a flagrant foul against Darrick Martin.

Bryant was scoreless in the first half of a playoff game for the first time since 1998, but he didn’t appear to be avoiding shots as he did in his infamous performance at Sacramento late in the regular season.

The Lakers got along just fine without him — particularly when Payton had his first good stretch of the series.

The first half was an unlikely scoring duel between point guards, with Cassell finishing the first half with 15 points, including three 3-pointers. In the second half, Los Angeles forced the ball inside to O’Neal — and he kept the Lakers ahead by taking all the abuse Minnesota could dish out.

O’Neal went 9 for 11 on free throws in Game 1, but reverted to form since. With his first miss in Game 3, he passed Michael Jordan atop the career list for playoff free throws attempted.

Game notes

Lakers guard Kareem Rush limped off the court after playing just 28 seconds in the first quarter. Rush has been bothered by a sprained right foot, but returned in the second half. … Dozens of celebrities were in attendance, but the biggest cheers went to Mr. T.

Artest fined

Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers was fined $10,000 by the NBA for making an obscene gesture during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit.

Artest made the gesture with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Pacers’ 72-67 loss to the Pistons on Monday night.

Game 3 of the best-of-7 series is tonight (5:30 p.m., ESPN) in Auburn Hills.

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